The human eye is one of the most amazing biological entities of the modern world. The capabilities of human eyes have astounded scientists for centuries. Its ability to distinguish light, distance, depth perception, size, and react to stimuli is truly astonishing. The human eye is so advanced that many believe it is proof of God’s existence because there is no feasible way that nature or evolution could have created it. Even Charles Darwin, a well-known advocate of evolution and the basis for Darwinism and natural selection, once stated that “to suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been
formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest sense.” But as amazing as our eyes are, we often take their abilities for granted; we forget how privileged we are to have a working, functioning means of sight. Because not all human eyes are perfect, many are dysfunctional or impeded in some way. When we think of vision deficiencies, blindness comes to mind for most. However, colorblindness is a visual handicapped of far less discussion or concern. Being colorblind can have enormous effects on a person’s life that the general population fails to realize and understand.
A common misconception about colorblindness is that everyone who has it cannot see colors at all and sees only in black and white or shades of gray. This is simply not true. Although there
are extreme forms of colorblindness where this is the case, most individuals suffering from colorblindness can see colors but have issues distinguishing certain colors from each other and/or cannot detect certain colors or shades of colors. In these more mild cases, the person would be classified as suffering from a color vision deficiency.
Although there are far worse conditions to suffer from than color vision deficiencies, I think it is important to shed some light on this strange and often ignored medical condition. It is impossible for someone not suffering from colorblindness to truly comprehend what it is like to live with this deficiency, but by describing a day in the life of someone who is colorblind maybe I can get you one step
closer. But first, let’s take a look at the science behind colorblindness.
Color blindness is caused by a fault in the development of the retinal cones in the eye. These cones perceive color in light and transmit it to the optic nerve. This is usually sex linked and the genes that code for photopigments are carried by the x chromosome. If the genes are damaged color blindness may be expressed. It is much more common in men (8 percent) than in women (0.5 percent) because men have only one x chromosome whereas women have a second x chromosome that will override the dysfunctional gene.
There are many types of colorblindness these include monochromic, or total colorblindness, in which no color is distinguishable; only black and white is visible. This is the rarest forms of color blindness. Dichromacy is when one of the three color mechanisms is absent or does not function. As a result, color is reduced to two dimensions. Under this category some people may be unable to distinguish certain colors. Red colorblind prevents the perception of red and black is seen instead. Blue and purple are indistinguishable as a result. And orange appears yellow. Green colorblind prevents the perception of green. Red and green are difficult to distinguish. Blue color blindness inhibits perception of blue and therefore blue appears green, yellow and orange appear pink, and purple appears red. All of these are very rare. More common is Trichromacy in which one of three cone pigments is altered affecting its sensitivity. This results in impaired color vision rather than loss. In this category there are, again, red, green, and blue deficiencies but on a less severe scale in which colors may be perceived but not as clearly and not all of the time. More than one deficiency can be present in a person. I personally am both protanomalous and deuteranomalous meaning two of my three cone pigments are damaged limiting my perception of red and green light. Luckily, I am trichomacous meaning color is not totally absent and can distinguish a vivid red from a vivid green. However, it is difficult, although not always impossible, for me to distinguish purple and blue, blue and pink, red and pink, orange and green, green and yellow, orange and red, and many others. Some colors just seem to look identical and other times I don’t even know how to
classify a color. My uncle also suffers from colorblindness which is where I assume I inherited it from.
Now that we’ve discussed the science behind the issue, let’s begin investigating how this condition can isolate people from society, alienate them, make life difficult, and confine them in life. Using my own experiences and the experiences of my uncle, I will walk you through a day in the life of a colorblind person in today’s society. We will stop and discuss the issues and limitations along the way and hopefully you will gain a deeper understanding of the condition and those it affects.
Imagine this, you wake up in the morning to the sound of you alarm buzzing. The clock reads 5:29 a.m. You examine the numbers on clock. To you they appear orange, but you know your eyes are deceiving you, and they are actually red. You get out of bed and go to your dresser. Even the simple act of getting dressed for the day is a challenge. It is filled almost completely with clothing of black, white, and gray color; it just makes matching easier. Having clothes in all shades of red, blue, and green just isn’t an option because matching would be next to impossible. The only colored shirts you own are sport shirts because you know the Red Sox shirts are red and the Patriots shirts are blue not because you can see the color but because you have been told these teams are this color and have memorized them. You head out to the parking lot to get your car; while searching among the vehicles you look for your car based on its make and model. You always double check the license plate in fear of driving off in a black Subaru instead of your red one. You
begin the drive to school and quickly come across a traffic light. You know the lights are colored red, yellow, and green because that’s just what you’ve been told. But to you the lights appear brown, orange, and white. You’ve come to the point where you know the top brown light is actually red and means stop, the middle orange light is actually yellow and means caution and to prepare to stop, and that the bottom white light is green and means go.
You arrive at school and head to history class. In today’s class you have to create a map showing the different empires and the land they have conquered. Unfortunately for you, the map you must create needs to be color coded using four different shades of blue, and it is a quiz. Normally you would have a friend assist you, asking “hey what color is this” over and over again. But this was a
quiz and must be done independently. You pray that the colored pencils are labelled by color, but they are not. You explain your situation to the teacher, but she just tells you to do your best. You hand in the assignment knowing full well you failed miserably all because of color.
After class a few of your friends who overheard you conversation with the teacher ask the dreaded question: “so you’re color blind? Does that mean you can’t see colors?” You try to explain that you can see colors but you can’t distinguish all of them and get certain colors confused. This fuels the barrage of “why” questions and the unrelenting color tests. Over and over they ask “what color is this”. When you get it wrong they laugh and can’t believe it, when you get it right they seem to believe you are no
longer color blind. You try to explain that they couldn’t understand it unless they saw what you saw.
You head to the library to register for next semester’s classes. You look over the core curriculum and are horrified to see you still need one class in art. Taking an art class for you would be like a deaf person going to a concert, so you have no choice but to opt for the art history class. You finish registering and check your degree audit to see your progress so far. You look back upon the classes you have taken and are saddened when you see the military science and ROTC classes. You still can’t believe you were medically disqualified in part due to inadequate color vision and now your full tuition scholarship is gone. You glance over what classes lie ahead and stress over whether or not you should change your major. You
are a criminal justice major but your career opportunities in this field are limited.
You’ve always wanted to be a police officer but realize that color vision is an essential part of the job. If you are told over the radio to arrest the man in a red hoody and blue jeans and you proceed to tackle and handcuff a man in an orange hoody and black jeans, you are probably going to have some issues. Not being able to distinguish color properly makes identifying suspects and vehicles difficult and you become a liability to the department which is why almost all departments require a color vision test before they will hire you. You know this because you’ve asked multiple departments, and you’ve done hours of agonizing research online hoping to find that one exception that will give you hope.
All this thinking has you stressed out and you search online for the color vision test used by police departments. You take it and fail horribly. This is nothing new, you’ve taken it and failed it a thousand times but somehow you thought maybe this time would be different. You begin to question yourself as to why you chose to pursue this career despite having such a disadvantage. Even if you were to get a waiver or make it past the test phase, any department is going to hire person with adequate vision over you, making the already competitive job market even tougher for you. Frustrated, you turn off the computer and head home for the night.
Now that you’ve experienced a day in the shoes of a colorblind person, let’s discuss some of the difficulties that you faced. First let’s discuss the clock. The color of the numbers on the clock is a
great example of how you have to compensate for things when you’re color blind. When you are corrected by someone and told that something is a different color than you perceive it as, you store that in your mind and remember it so you won’t make the mistake again. This happens with many items. I spent 9 years of my life believing pine trees were brown and only know they are green because I was corrected. I now only call them evergreen trees so I will remember they are green. It gets to the point where I only know certain things are a certain color because that’s what I’ve been told. In a sense, I almost lose my ability to think for myself and do feel very isolated from the rest of the population.
Next was the clothing situation. This is one of the most limiting factors when it comes to color blindness. It is very difficult
to get dressed appropriately and to match when you are color blind. Therefore I have a tendency to buy only jeans and beige colored bottoms and shirts that are black, white, or a shade of gray. This way, I always match and will never leave the house looking like a fool. Because of this, I become somewhat confined and limited in what I purchase and how I dress.
Now let’s examine the experience with the vehicle. Something as easy as finding your car in the parking lot became difficult. When you have to memorize the license plate on the car to ensure it is actually yours, you can’t help but feel a little separated from the rest of society. The traffic lights are even worse. I can’t help but laugh anytime I’m driving with someone and they say “the light’s green” because I have to just go along with it even though it looks
white to me. Little things like this are what make you feel a bit out place and abnormal.
The next experience was the history class and exchange with friends afterwards. This showed how colorblindness can have adverse effects on things we don’t often consider. For the average person that quiz was incredibly easy and an automatic “A” but I failed it. This is one of many examples that display the everyday difficulties that come with color blindness. As for the interaction with friends afterwards, this is the aspect that creates the most powerful feelings of alienation. When people, your own friends, are asking question after question and testing you on the color of the wall, their shirts, and cars and can’t believe your answers you realize how different you truly are from them.
The last two scenarios were the most limiting and most serious. I was very limited in which classes I was able to take for my art credits. I couldn’t possibly take an actual art class and was forced to take an art history course instead. But even worse, you got a sense of how careers choices can be limited as well. Being colorblind eliminates any possibility of being a pilot, an electrician, a bomb squad member, a designer, decorator, anything in the arts, and many law enforcement careers. This is where you can see just how severely color vision deficiency can hold you back, place limitations on your life, and isolate you from the rest of the population.
I hope after experiencing what it is like to live with a color vision deficiency you have gained a new perspective on color blindness and won’t believe all the fallacies that society has brought you to believe. I hope you now understand that people with colorblindness are isolated from society and truly are different. I am part of the 8 percent who can’t experience the full effect of this world and hope you come to realize that we see the world in a totally different lens than you do and you should never take the privilege of sight for granted. But most of all, I really hope that if you should ever meet someone who is colorblind you will help them out when they ask you for help. And please, for pete’s sake do not quiz them on the color of everything in your surroundings.